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South Washington County Republicans favor Paul in caucus poll, keep focus on local seats

Ron Paul was the top vote-getter among Senate District 57 Republicans Tuesday, even though Rick Santorum won Minnesota's nonbinding presidential straw poll. Bulletin photo by Jon Avise

Local Republicans expressed hope that Tuesday's heavily attended caucuses are a sign of continued momentum for their party in south Washington County.

Voters in District 57 overturned decades of Democratic-Farmer-Labor control of the area in 2010, electing Rep. John Kriesel to a state House seat long held by Democrats and nearly handing DFL state Sen. Katie Sieben a surprise loss.

Kriesel told a big turnout of District 57A Republican caucus-goers at Cottage Grove Middle School on Tuesday night their enthusiasm was needed this year to help continue the Republican push.

"They said, 'you can't win, you can't win -- this is a DFL area,'" Kriesel told an overflow auditorium. "And we took it back."

Area Republicans will need to be fired up again this year to further those gains, he said, with south Washington County Democrats sure to be motivated as well.

Kriesel's comments kicked off the packed precinct caucuses, where district Republican chair Kellie Eigenheer estimated nearly 300 voters turned out to cast a ballot in the state party's presidential preference straw poll -- the latest stop on a hotly-contested GOP nominating race that was won by Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in Minnesota.

In District 57, however, Texas Congressman Ron Paul was the favorite among Republicans. Paul earned 237 votes in the non-binding poll, followed by Santorum's 209 votes. Mitt Romney had 105 votes in the district, Newt Gingrich 61 votes.

Nearly all District 57A precincts drew more caucus participants than in 2008, Eigenheer said. That, in part, is a sign of improving Republican fortunes in the area and momentum behind the party she attributed to a talented crop of candidates and voter frustration.

"I think part of it is the quality of the candidates we have now," she said, praising Hastings Rep. Denny McNamara, Kriesel and Karin Housley, the real estate agent, small business owner and radio host who nearly knocked-off Sieben in 2010, falling 600 votes short.

Housley has said she will run again this year and urged caucus-goers to help her campaign to defeat her presumptive opponent, Sieben -- though that won't be confirmed until updated district maps are released later this month.

"There was pretty much no hope [of electing Republicans] for this district," Housley said of the past. But that has changed, party activists say.

Phil Christopherson, a St. Paul Park resident who recently moved back to the area from Duluth, said at Tuesday's caucus he has noticed a shift toward Republicans in District 57 since his days working for area GOP campaigns more than 25 years ago.

"I think the district is older, for one thing," said Christopherson, who said he caucused for Santorum.

"It's a little more mature than it was. It uses to be all young families ... and now you see a lot of retirees. I think the shift is more conservative."

Caucus-goer Mike Volgren, of Cottage Grove, was among those who cast their ballot for local presidential straw poll-winner Paul, who finished a strong second in the statewide results.

"I feel like I've been voting against someone for all this time," said Volgren, who said he supported Paul in-part for his views on the Constitution. "Now, I feel like I'm voting for him."